Meet the Maitlands (by Noel Streatfeild)

I have enjoyed books by Noel Streatfeild for over forty years; I don't know when I first came across her books, but over the years I've built up a reasonable collection, and have even replaced a couple which were falling to pieces. She is probably best known for her classic 'Ballet Shoes', but wrote a large number of books which were very popular in the middle of the 20th century and - when I read them - the 1970s.

I knew that there were various of Streatfeild's books which were no longer in print and hard to obtain, so I was very pleased when I spotted 'Meet the Maitlands' on the AwesomeBooks site back in December, in their 'Bargain bin'.  Better still, I had a discount voucher. To my astonishment, when my copy arrived it was a hardback, complete with coloured dustjacket, and looked 'as new'.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, this is a delightful story for children. Noel Streatfeild is gifted in her characterisation and particularly her understanding of children's minds.  We're introduced almost immediately to a family of five children, the oldest of whom are ten-year-old twins. While their younger siblings are a little shadowy, and I felt that the twins - Selina and John - were very believable. I could feel for Selina as she made some difficult decisions and faced some stressful situations, looking after her twin's emotional wellbeing and babysitting her younger siblings with aplomb.

There's humour in the story as well, and misunderstandings. I was amused by Violet, the precocious 14-year-old who falsifies a reference in order to become a governess, and concerned for Priscilla, mother of the five children, who is frail and regularly ill (presumably with tuberculosis). Most of all, though, I found her son John getting under my skin; at ten his father wants him to go to boarding school, but John is a gentle, sensitive boy who loves to sit and dream, and who would be devastated by the harshness of the preparatory schools of his era.

So there's a bit of social history in this short novel, a good dose of 'ordinary' family life of the era (unusually for Streatfeild, none of the main characters is supremely gifted in dance or music). There are also a few of the author's opinions about education which shine through, with the importance of treating each child as a unique individual. But most of all I enjoyed the people and the story. I started it one evening, expecting to read a chapter or two each day for a week, but could hardly put it down, and finished it the following morning.

Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys children's fiction of this genre. Not in print, of course, but occasionally available second-hand.

Review copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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